Here’s a cake you don’t hear about very often. Actually, here are two cakes you don’t hear about very often. But before we get into Taft Cake, it would help to have a tiny bit about Taft.
By 32, he was Solicitor General of the United States, appointed by President Harrison; then he was Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of War between 1904 and 1908; and finally, accepted the party’s nomination to be the Republican candidate for President in 1908.
At this point, to genuinely understand Taft, we have to pause and talk about who he really was. Taft was not a politician. He didn’t have the eye for nuance that made Teddy Roosevelt a beloved favorite. He was about as delicate as his then-320-ish pound frame would suggest, but at the same time, lacked the kind of motivating fire that pushed his predecessor. In short, Taft was an academic who was more or less pushed by his party (and his wife) into the presidency.
Taft’s ambition was to be on the Supreme Court, and ultimately, he took that as a job a few years after he lost his bid for re-election, from 1921 to 1930; he died a month after retiring from the Court that March.
As a lawyer, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I don’t think Taft was a particularly skilled jurist, either. He was obsessed with the minutia and procedural aspects of the bench, but felt that the authority of the court was strongest when it was united, and was therefore inclined to vote with a majority wherever he could find one (although there are some notable exceptions). Particularly galling to me was his inclination to take a narrow reading of the Fourteenth amendment, suggesting that due process meant freedom for companies rather than rights for individuals.
(For example, he wrote the opinion in a 1922 decision striking down a tax on companies that used child labor. Ultimately, in 1938, Congress just prohibited the transportation of goods across state lines made from “oppressive child labor,” which was enough, given that most states had by then passed their own laws prohibiting the practice.)
In short, while I don’t think he was a bad person, I think Taft was too damn rich for too damn long to be any damn good as a judge.
So how does this figure fit into our cake? The earliest mention of Taft cake that I could find was in the March 14, 1913 edition of the Boston Post:
Mrs. Alice I. Sheldon.
East Northport, Me.
It has very little in common with this version from the January 24, 1914 edition of The Covina (California) Argus:
Taft Cake (Loaf Cake).
Here’s a version that appeared during Taft’s stint on the Supreme Court. From the May 9, 1925 edition of the San Antonio Light:
Sift all together, then toss in one cup raisins and one cup nut meats and mix well. Then add one and one-half cups apple sauce and one-half cup melted butter. For apple sauce steam apples and mash through colander but do not add sugar. Bake in a loaf in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for 45 minutes; if in layers for 35 minutes.
Could it be based on a favorite of President Taft’s? Well, let’s check in with his Aunt Delia. From the December 29, 1910 edition of the Grand Traverse Herald, Traverse City, Michigan (from an interview originally conducted by the Denver Post):
Miss Delia C. Torrey lives up in Millbury, Massachusetts. She is the favorite aunt of President Taft. Ever since the President was a boy Aunt Delia has been making him old-fashioned cookies, apple pies, puddings, and so on. Whenever the President gets a chance he runs up to his Aunt Delia’s, particularly for a season with her apple pies and her chicken.
Mrs. Taft is quite a cook herself, but Aunt Delia cooks with a number of little characteristic frills that makes her dainties quite different from those cooked by anyone else.
Here “Aunt Delia” gives her recipe to the readers of this newspaper, for a number of old-fashioned characteristic things that the President likes, and that no one cooks any better than she does.
One recipe sort of resembles the 1913 Taft Cake and the one on our recipe card.
Christmas Fruit Cake–This cake will keep for months in stone crock or jar. You take a pound of butter, one and a quarter pounds of flour, one and a quarter pounds of sugar, ten eggs, two pounds of currants, four pounds of raisins, one pound of citron, one Tablespoonful of cinnamon, two nutmegs, mace, one teaspoonful of soda and a cup of molasses, and bake for four hours.
Another looks like the 1914 and 1925 version, sans chocolate.
Apple Sauce Cake–Will says you don’t have to be hungry to eat this cake. He certainly ought not to be after he gets through. I take a cup of sugar, half a cup of shortening, half a teaspoonful of clove, a teaspoonful of cinnamon, a salt spoonful of salt, a cup of chopped raisins, a teaspoonful of soda, a cup of sour apple sauce, and one and three-quarters of a cup of sifted flour. I cream the sugar and shortening, add the clove, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg, and, dissolving the soda in a little warm water, add to the cup of apple sauce, which is then added to the batter. Then I beat all together, add flour last and bake in a loaf for 45 minutes.
Well, there’s another possibility, and this one would make the fruitcake option more likely. From the December 26, 1911 edition of the Warren Evening Mirror:
Taft Wants Fruit Cake.
Texas Woman Is Asked to Send One For Christmas Dinner.
Just before Christmas of 1910 Miss Hattie Brandenburg of Dallas, who has a reputation in culinary lines, baked a fruit cake and sent it to the president. Mrs. Taft acknowledged its receipt and said that Mr. Taft enjoyed it very much.
Much to the surprise and delight of Miss Brandenburg, she recently received a letter from the White House asking if it would be possible to get another one of those delicious fruit cakes for Christmas dinner this year. It will be sent.
There’s not much information on Hattie Brandenburg out there; there was a Hettie Brandenburg who would’ve been in her 40s in Dallas at the time, but other newspapers say it was a Hattie Brandenburger from San Antonio. And anyway, before we go too far down that path, we should take note that Taft has a history of this maneuver.
From a 1908 edition of Good Housekeeping, we see him using the same trick when he was Secretary of War under Theodore Roosevelt:
Fate decreed that Betty Lyle should be born into the deep peace of the grass country, rather than out in a world which wrestles painfully with progress and art. Progress and art are all very well, but there are things better. Betty’s cake is one of them. When you see, smell and taste it, you draw a long breath and say, “Only suppose she had wasted her genius upon sculpture, or painting, or any of those things!”
She is not Betty Lyle any more, but Mrs. W. H. Wilson, a good wife and housewife, and a very happy mother.
Thus it came to pass that no less a person than Secretary Taft fell under the spell of them, and insisted that he must have a piece to take back to Washington. He gave account of his latest discovery to the president; result, an order to Mrs. Wilson for the White House Christmas plum cake, along with a check of generous size, and an intimation that if it were insufficient, the cake must be sent in quantity, for it would surely be paid for. It was sent, of course, but the sender was not a bit puffed up over doing it. She had sent other cakes, one of them even to King Edward VII’s court.
Indeed, she has sent this “devil’s fruit cake,” which is, in a way, her specialty, pretty well all over the world.
Hmm. “Devil’s fruit cake” sounds like it could have chocolate in it, but Good Housekeeping didn’t share the recipe.
For that, let’s visit the March 19, 1911 edition of The San Francisco Call–where we’ll find chocolate and enough booze to make anyone jolly (note Taft in the illustration):
Below is given the recipe for the devil fruit cake, which is perhaps the best known of Mrs. Wilson’s creations. It has won the approval of a potential president, an actual one and all of their counsellors. It is a wonderful combination of goodies, which in the finished state is warranted to bring a smile of sweet contentment to the face of the veriest pessimist.
Devil’s Fruit Cake
So as it turns out, yeah, it’s entirely possible that two separate fruitcakes took the name “Taft cake.”
From a box sold in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. butter
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup dates
1/2 cup nuts
1 cup boiling water
1 teaspoon baking soda
Bake in loaf pan, 325 deg., about an hour.